I had wanted to do the Corregidor trip last time but the prices the travel agent gave me seemed high. This time Lyn (a Filipino consultant from our team, instigator of the Batangas caper and dealmaker supreme) took charge and came up with an all day guided tour including lunch for P1100 ($20 and change).
As we stood dockside on the wharf waiting for our ferry to load, I looked left and a full color Chinese palace, half city block square and four stories high caught my eye about 200 yards offshore. Turns out this floating casino (now abandoned) was the source of a disastrous stock market debacle known as the B&W scam that forced a shakeup of the Philippine Stock Exchange and the Securities and Exchange Commission. A bit of recent history (and the reason I am here) right before our eyes.
Flying fish led the way as our ferry pulled away from the dock for the 26 nautical mile trip to Corregidor Island which sits strategically in the center of the entrance to Manila Bay. A rugged, tadpole shaped island, Corregidor has been the focal point for the defense of Manila from invaders since the Spanish arrived in the 1600's.
Our host on the trip over was a 66 year old Filipino man who was 5 years old when the Japanese attacked Bataan and Corregidor and he and his family were taken prisoner. He gave us a warm welcome to the island and made a special point to introduce all the veterans aboard and thank them. All grew quiet as we viewed the live footage documentary on the battle(s) of Corregidor. The island itself had an air of tropical serenity as we sailed into the tiny harbor. The Japanese battle plan was to capture Bataan and Corregidor within 50 days, forcing General McArthur to surrender, then move south to take Papua New Guinea and Australia. Under relentless Japanese bombing, American and Filippino troups held out for 5 months and significantly delayed the Japanese advance. We learned that this 4 mile by 1/2 mile strip of land is considered the most heavily bombed place on earth during any war.
There were five tour busses (more like open air trolleys) to take us around the island. Three had English speaking guides, one Tagalog and one Japanese. We climbed into bus #2 with a mixture of Filipinos and westerners. The island (and small hotel) is now run and superbly maintained by the Corregidor Foundation. Our guide Fredrico kept up a lively play by play on on all things Corregidor WWII.
It did not take long to get to the other side of the island where we could see the Bataan peninsula. As it came into view, an elderly Filipino gentleman (whom we shall call Mr. B) sitting in the seat in front of us stood up and began talking to the guide in tagolog. Now 81 years old, Mr. B was one of the prisoners who had survived the infamous "Bataan death march." With his wife and daughter he was returning to the island for the first time since WWII. First stop, Lorcha Dock and a large "I shall return" bronze of Gen. McArthur now gazing back at the McArthur Cafe.
At the memorial to the battles of Filipino history we got out of the bus and I walked up to Mr. B. We struck up a conversation and he asked me what I knew about the war. I told him my father had served on Guadacanal for ninteen months. His face lit up and he grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously. "Thank You, Thank You" he repeated, "I am so greatful for you Americans who did not desert us. Another Filipino standing nearby (who was younger than me and obviously born after the war) also jumped in and pumped my hand. I was touched by their passionate feelings of gratitude. I replied with the first thing that came to mind. "Filipinos and Americans fought and died side by side liberating the Philippines". Quite a refreshing change from the daily headlines decrying American inteference with the Philippines today.
The next stop mid-island, was Malinta Tunnel, an 835 feet central chamber with 24 lateral tunnels where General McArthur and best bud Philippine President Quezon, along with Filipino and American troops and medical personnel survived the relentless Japanese attacks. As the tour enters the tunnel, great gates close behind you to leave you standing in the dark. As you walk the tunnel and the lights come up you can see many of the collapsed laterals were left as is, but some were restored as settings for a very moving light and sound show composed of tableaus, film clips and sound effects. Near the end there was a tableau of General McArthur turning over command to Lt. Col. Wainwright during the final days before surrender. As the tour group moved on Mr. B stood alone and quietly saluted General McArthur one last time.
Moving upwards to the head of the tadpole known as Topside (the point of highest elevation), big gun battery sites show how much battle damage is still preserved. When I saw the bomb craters from explosions capable of flinging guns weighing hundreds of tons around like matchsticks, the magnitude of the horror of battle began to sink in.
Although thousands of Japanese troops were trapped When Corregidor was recaptured, allies took fewer than 30 Japanese prisoners. We passed multiple sites of mass Japanese suicides (throwing themselves off cliffs or blowing themselves up in tunnels taking many allied soldiers with them).
Our tour guide summed it up simply as we looked on. "In war there are no real winners."
Back in Manila to end the day, our team assembled at a waterfront bar. With a group of Japanese tourists we watched a brilliant red sunset over Manila Bay.